Haggard's parents moved from Oklahoma to California during the Great Depression; at the time, much of the population of Bakersfield was made up of economic refugees from Oklahoma and surrounding states. Haggard's father died when he was nine, and Merle began to rebel against his mother, who put him in a juvenile detention center. Merle's older brother gave him a guitar when he was twelve, and he taught himself to play. In 1951, Haggard (at 14) ran away to Texas with a friend, but returned that same year and was arrested for truancy and petty larceny. He ran away from the next juvenile detention center he was sent to, and went to Modesto, California. He worked odd jobs, legal and not, and made his performing debut at a bar. Once he was found again, he was sent to the Preston School of Industry, a high-security installation. Shortly after he was released, fifteen months later, Haggard was sent back after beating a local boy during a robbery attempt.
After his second release, Haggard saw Lefty Frizzell in concert with his friend Teague, and sang a couple songs for him. Lefty was so impressed that he allowed Haggard to sing at the concert. The audience loved him and he began working on a full-time music career. After earning a local reputation, Haggard's money problems caught up with him and he was arrested for a robbery in 1957. He was sent to prison in San Quentin for fifteen years. Even in prison, Haggard was wild. He planned an escape, but never followed through, and ran a gambling and brewing racket from his cell. Soon, however, Haggard befriended author and death row inmate Caryl Chessman. Chessman's predicament inspired Haggard to turn his life around, and he soon earned his high school equivalency diploma, kept a steady job in the prison's textile plant and played in the prison's band. He was released in 1960.
Upon his return, Haggard began performing again and soon began recording with Tally Records. His first song was "Skid Row", just as the Bakersfield Sound was developing in the area, as a reaction against the over-produced honky tonk of the Nashville Sound. In 1962, Haggard wound up performing at a Wynn Stewart show in Las Vegas and heard Wynn's "Sing a Sad Song". He asked for permission to record it, and the resulting single was a national hit in 1964.
Haggard released a series of successful singles in the early 1960s, including "Just Between the Two of Us" (duet with Bonnie Owens) and "(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers". He then signed to Capitol Records and released "I'm Gonna Break Every Heart I Can" to limited sales. In 1966, however, his second Capitol single, "Swinging Doors" was a Top Five hit and Haggard had become a nationally known superstar. During the late 1960s, Haggard's chart success was consistent and impressive. "The Bottle Let Me Down", "The Fugitive", "Branded Man", "Mama Tried", "Sing Me Back Home", "Hungry Eyes," "The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde" and "I Threw Away the Rose" are among the more well-remembered titles. "Mama Tried" was part of the soundtrack to Killers Three, which also included Haggard's acting debut.
In 1968, Haggard's first tribute LP Same Train, Different Train: A Tribute to Jimmie Rodgers, was released to great acclaim. 1969's apparent political statement, "Okie from Muskogee", was actually written as an abjectly humurous character portrait, a "documentation of the uneducated that lived in America at the time, and I mirror that. I always have. Styaing in touch with the working class." (Phipps 2001) Despite all this the song's critical attitude towards hippies and other members of the counterculture is often mistaken to express Haggard's personal beliefs. For example, Alabama Governor George Wallace asked Haggard for an endorsement which Haggard declined. Haggard also expressed anger at the result of the 2000 presidential election (Fox 2004, p.51). However, Haggard does express sympathy with the "parochial" or conservative way of life expressed in "Okie" and songs such as "The Fighting Side of Me" (ibid).
Haggard's next LP was A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World (Or My Salute to Bob Wills), which helped spark a revival of swing music. In 1972, Governor Ronald Reagan gave Haggard a full pardon for his past crimes. During the early to mid 1970s, Haggard's chart domination continued with songs like "Someday We'll Look Back", "Carolyn" and "Grandma Harp".
By the 1980s, Haggard's popularity was waning in pop markets. He published an autobiography called Sing Me Back Home. Although he won a Grammy Award for Best Male Country Vocal Performance for 1985's "That's The Way Love Goes", a new kind of honky tonk had begun to overtake country music and singers like George Strait and Randy Travis had taken over the charts. His last number one hit was "Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Star" in 1987.
In December of 2004, Haggard spoke at length to CNN's Larry King on Larry King Live about his incarceration as a young man and said it was "Hell" and "the scariest experience of his life."